The first computer game that really frightened me to the bones was 1994's The 7th Guest. It's certainly primitive compared to today's games, but parts of it were indubitably scary. Even early on, when a kind of Steadicam slowly led me up a Victorian mansion's stairs, there was a feeling of uncomfortable dread. Don't go there, I said to myself. Yet, like so many ill-fated protagonists in the movies, I went there. And when ghosts moved about on the second floor — damn — that was eerie. It was like that "cold spot" in Robert Wise's The Haunting. Because the setup created such foreboding tension, I saw the ghosts in The 7th Guest just as distinctly as I felt the cold spot.
Back then, horror-based games were influenced more by movies and TV than anything else. The 7th Guest game developers admitted they wanted to make an interactive film inspired by horror movies and David Lynch's Twin Peaks. So their game was derivative, even as it raised genuine goose bumps.
Today, The Walking Dead series of episodic games feels influenced to some extent by The 7th Guest. It, too, is a point and click adventure, meaning that you place your mouse pointer in the area where you want to go. Click a mouse button, and you're there. But it feels like you have more at stake in this tense, apocalyptic world full of zombies, blood and starvation. That in itself makes the effort more effective than its predecessor, made nearly 20 years ago.
To find out why, let's begin with a definition from an older tome by a true master of horror. According to Stephen King's definitive Danse Macabre, horror "is a dance — a moving, rhythmic search. The good horror tale will dance its way to the center of your life and find the secret door to you that you believed no one but you knew of ... The gross out level is one thing, but it is on that second level of horror that we often experience that low sense of anxiety which we call 'the creeps.'"
The effect of video games on the mind can be compared to the effects of popular novels, just like King's. During the course of hours and hours of immersion, characters' personalities and histories stay with you — especially when the narrative, dialogue and dramatic tension are strong. The Walking Dead game is more about experiencing unsettling emotion than it is about killing zombies. While dealing with a zombie can amp up adrenaline, the feeling of shocking dread that leads to panic can be far more affecting. So when a character you care deeply about is killed in Episode 4, that's a horror that stays with you.
By that time, you have talked to the people of this game, and you have forgotten they're made of bits and bytes. You have listened attentively to their hopes and fears. And when you can't save them from the undead because you aren't quick enough in the game, it has a devastating effect. It's not just horror — not just "the creeps," but the game builds in terror, too, defined by King as "a pervasive sense of disestablishment; that things are in the unmaking." The gross zombies are out to get you, yes. But they are not as frightening as the possible unmaking, as it were, of family, community and civilization.
The discovery of weird, haunted creeps in the dark and ugly things that go bump in the night is an important part of BioShock, one the scariest games ever made. At one point, you move into a barely lit room and witness the shadow of a demented mother singing "Hush Little Baby" to what you think is her infant lying in a black, antique stroller. The mere sight is the stuff of nightmares. The game's writer, Ken Levine, studied both horror and terror in everything from Lost to The Shining to hone its frights. And it worked: BioShock is a superior game that should be studied by anyone who dares to develop interactive entertainment in this decade. And played by anyone who wants to be well and truly scared.
Horror and terror don't just seize you when you're the victim, either. You get another side entirely in the just-released Assassin's Creed III, a game that's steeped in the details of American history. In it, in a kind of Halloween costume ball dress-up, you play a stealthy assassin around the time of the American Revolution. You meet both important and minor figures of the era: both Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Church, the first Surgeon General. But as you engage in the evils that you must in order to solve a great, overarching mystery, you can see the effects of the terror and horror you inflict on those who live in the New World when you sneak up and annihilate them. The look on the face of just one of many Redcoats I attacked is the look I must have had while seeing myself attacked in The Walking Dead. In the circle of horror, it's either scare or be scared. And in either case, you, the game player, must deal with the consequences.
Harold Goldberg is the author of All Your Base Are Belong to Us (How 50 Years of Videogames Conquered Pop Culture).